NEXT TUESDAY EVENING I am going to be watching television. I am going to be watching a movie called "Playing for Time," which is based on the autobiography of a woman musician, Fania Fenelon. Fenelon, a cabaret singer who joined the French resistance and got caught by the Germans, survived nine months in Auschwitz by playing in an all-women's orchestra that provided musical relief for the SS officers who were in the process of exterminating 4 million people in the concentration camp.
"Playing for Time" has been causing a sensation since the book was published in the United States in 1978. Hers is a story that defies adjectives. She waited 30 years to tell it because, she told one interviewer, she wanted to live her life, which she is now doing on the outskirts of Paris. Fenelon says she has chosen to tell her story now because she sees a resurgence of fascism all around her.
Fenelon is a woman not only with a story but with a cause. It is no wonder, then, that she has become terribly upset at the casting of the movie. Fenelon, whose father was Jewish and whose story is one of survival during the systematic extermination of Jews, is being portrayed by the well-known political activist, Vanessa Redgrave, Redgrave, an outspoken supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is better at acting than she is at politics. Fenelon has objected to the casting from the start, saying, quite simply, that Redgrave is a fanatic and she does not want a fanatic to play her part.
Fenelon tried unseccessfully to persuade CBS to recast the part. Then she launched an effort to persuade CBS affiliates not to air the film, out of respect for concentration camp victims. At the same time, she asked the American viewing public to engage in what she called "Operation Switch-Off" and not watch the film. Earlier this month, she was joined in that effort by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles. Advertisers, ever responsive to public pressure and ever aware that a cheerful commercial time-out from the Holocaust can make them look foolish, have not exactly been beating down the doors at CBS to grab a spot of commercial time. People have been signing petitions and having press conferences and the thing has gotten so big that the Vanessa Redgrave Controversy has landed on the cover of Newsweek.
None of this has been easy on Linda Yellen, the 30-year-old producer of the movie who cast Redgrave in the part. She spent six months in an editing room turining what she calls a "disappointing" movie into one that features Redgrave in a performance that Newsweek say may be the finest ever seen on television. Yellen, thinking we were in the 1980s and not the 1950s, cast the movie the way she thought movies were supposed to be cast; namely, by trying to find the best available person to play a part.
"She has long been one of the actresses I admire most," Yellen says of Redgrave. "This part is one of the most beautifully written but one of the most difficult parts to come along in a long time. This is a part that needed a woman who had a slight European quality to her, a woman who was willing to shave her head -- there is no way of faking it -- a woman who could sing well enough that she could be perceived as being a French chanteuse, a woman who could undergo the physcial changes in appearance that could sugget a person who had been in a concentration camp. Most importantly, it's a role that in the hands of a lesser actress could become a passive role. That would have been terrible because it's the crux of the whole picture."
Further, Yellen says, "We're talking about the top actresses in the world, and how many would consent to do televison? I was just overjoyed when she agreed to do the part. During this time there was never any connection in my mind with her political acitvities. I signed Vanessa with CBS's approval, (and, she points out, the network has continued to support her). Vanessa began to work very diligently on the part. She took singing lessons, she took piano lessons so she could do her own playing" Then the storm broke.
"I was faced with a situtaion which was morally and humanly abhorrent to me, which was to take a person who had gotten a part that she very much wanted to play and that she had begun working on and who had every qualification for the role, and I believe was making personal sacrifices to play the role, and I was faced with the suggestion of firing her," Yellen says. "I would not have made the picture without her under those circumstances."
The screenplay for "Playing for Time" was written by Arthur Miller, who was cited for contempt of Congress in the 1950s for refusing to name names for the House Un-American Acitivites Committee. "To me," says Yellen, "The incredible irony was here they were dong it to Arthur Miller again. Although I was too young to remember the blacklisting, here they were trying to make Arthur Miller, who had suffered in the blacklisting, a party in once again creating a type of blacklisting. I just couldn't believe we've gone this far, all the way from the '50s through the '60s and '70s and the enlightenment, and now here we are again. I felt we just had to dig in and make the very best picture we could and then some, maybe. I refrained from saying anything because I wanted the picture to speak for us. I thought it would be the most effective voice.
"This piece as a picture was meant to bring people together," says Yellen. "The message of the film, and why this group was so special, was that the survival of one depends on the survival of all. In that way the film is a microcosm of our world, of our society. Instead of ripping apart the groups, the way the other people do in the film, Fanita, the way Vanessa plays her and Arthur Miller has written her, recognizes this human interdependence. That's what makes the picture more than a record of the most hard time in our civilization. It is a statement that transcends that and is a statement of how we should live because we're all playing for time, and we all better be in harmony a lot more than we are."
Blacklisting worked in the '50s because, unlike Linda Yellen, producers caved in to pressure and made talented writers and actors virtually unemployable because of their politics. They forgot that art and politics are separate. Yellen hopes that people who are angered at the casting will see the film and realize that Redgrave was the best person for the role. "At the start of the controversy, before the filming, she said, 'I really want to play this role. Linda, I think I can do something special with it," Yellen says.
Movies like "Playing for Time" need to be made so that no one is able to forget what happened. And they need to be made by the best possible artists, by people who can do something special. By insisting on that, Yellen has done right by her movie, and she has also done right by us.